If you’re like me, your life is pretty much a constant struggle against time. Between email communication, grading, curriculum planning, committee work, and trying to fit in the three-hour finale of the Bachelorette (kidding, but seriously) it’s nearly impossible to find enough hours in the day to accomplish everything that’s needed.
And since I haven’t yet found a way to manufacture more time, here are a few tips, tricks, and shortcuts I’ve found along the way to help me spend a fewer minutes working, and a few more minutes enjoying my free time.
Increase Email Efficiency
I have a love-hate relationship with email. On one hand, email’s great! It’s quick, easy to reply, and generally accessible to anyone at any time. On the other, it’s a constant stream of to-do’s and everyone wants a response, well, yesterday.
My best advice about managing emails: reduce clutter, read and quickly filter out FYI emails, and most importantly, identify the actionables, those emails that actually require a response or, well, an action on your part. The more organized you are the more productive you can be.
Filters and Folders
My college serves roughly 73,000 students per year, which amounts to lots of college-wide emails. If you’re not using Google processes at your college, start (or petition to start). Google has some incredibly advanced filtering options, enabling you to move all your important emails to one folder and all of your clutter or FYI emails to another.
For additional details, this Zapier article lays out 7 quick Gmail filters that can help you tackle this.
A Low-Tech Approach: If you don’t use Google, or trying it out sounds too daunting, try something as simple as sorting your email by unread vs. read. If you place the unread emails remain at the top and read emails at the bottom you can easily identify items needing attention.
Bounce back features
Reminders are life. I also use Boomerang for Gmail. If I have to tackle an issue but don’t have time right now, this tool helps bring it back up later on based on when I specify that I will have the time to respond.
There’s a pause option if you need it. If the emails are just getting to be too much, Boomerang includes a “Pause” feature which allows you to stop all incoming messages until you are ready to receive more. So, hit pause, tackle what’s in front of you, then keep moving forward.
A picture is worth a thousand words (and possibly fewer emails). I use screenshots for literally everything, including writing this article! There are many times when words aren’t enough, and an image will explain something better and faster. I use an open source program called Greenshot because it is super simple. Once installed, a quick button press will enable you to pick the part of your screen you wish to capture (you can also edit in this program). Quick, easy, and simple.
Didn’t I just say that? Find yourself sending the same message semester after semester? Canned messages are quick, pre-scripted messages you can insert quickly to tackle routine email questions. A few canned responses I often use address a wide variety of items like syllabus information, office hour details, grading policies, etc.
If you’re using Gmail, go under settings > labs > enable canned messages. The next time you compose a message you’ll see an extra option to create a new canned message. You can also “insert” and “delete” saved responses as well.
If you’re using a different email program, Google their canned response feature or check with your school IT department to see if this feature is available.
Low-Tech Approach: if your email service doesn’t offer this handy canned or saved responses feature, try writing up a few of the most frequent messages you find yourself writing. You can either save them in your email draft folder or copy/paste them into a trusty Word document. You can then quickly use these responses via copy/paste and avoid retyping the same information again and again throughout the semester.
Small tricks to increase grading efficiency
“I got marked down for what?!?” Students are always asking this question. And, without a detailed rubric, there’s always a lot of gray areas to try and explain as to how a grade was given. But, armed with the power of a detailed rubric, I can minimize the debate. One particular rubric I like (and that helps save me time by avoiding this “Why did I get…? grade question) is this rubric from Northwest Education. It has informative gradients of correctness. The clearer the assignment, the clearer the rubric, the easier it is for the student (and me) to evaluate the content.
I had a retired teacher friend of mine once ask while I was grading, “Why, don’t you line up your key with the exams?“ How had I never thought of this before? Being able to grade a test even mere seconds faster produces serious time savings over an entire semester.
When I write exams now, my layout includes answer sections on the right side, work on the left. This way when grading, I place the key offset to the right at the bottom of the stack of exams allowing me to speedily assess answers side-by-side.
Curriculum and Teaching
Don’t reinvent the wheel. Consult with your colleagues as much as possible to share course materials. You’re not responsible for creating everything from scratch. Even with a wealth of information online, it can take quite a bit of time to sort and find videos or activities that fit your teaching style. Publisher-provided materials can also help fill the gap by providing quizzes, PPTs, handouts, and online practice material.
Limit yourself to 5 new activities per term or semester. If you are teaching a class you’ve taught before, limit the number of new activities you try to allow time to create a plan, carry out the plan, and assess how the plan worked.